Zorawar: India’s indigenous mountain tank redefining high-altitude warfare

In the challenging terrain of Eastern Ladakh, where extreme altitudes and harsh conditions pose unique operational challenges, India is poised to deploy its first indigenous mountain tank – the Zorawar.

The Zorawar is a light tank designed for the Indian Army, aiming to be a high-performance armoured fighting vehicle (AFV-ILT). It is engineered to possess a notable power-to-weight ratio along with significant firepower, protection, and advanced surveillance and communication capabilities.

The primary objective of its design is to equip the Indian Army with a versatile tank capable of executing operations across different terrains and countering a wide range of threats posed by adversaries, including various equipment profiles. The tank is named in honour of General Zorawar Singh, a prominent Dogra military leader from the 19th century.

HISTORY

The presence of light Chinese tanks along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) raised concerns, prompting an urgent need for light tanks. Initially, the option considered was importing ready-made light tanks from Russia or a friendly nation. In 2020, the Russian Spurt-SDM1 light tank was chosen as the preferred option. This tank was equipped with a 125mm SB main gun and a 7.62mm PKT machine gun, weighing a total of 18 tons. It had an operational range of 500 kilometres and could travel at a speed of 45 km/h across various terrains and 10 km/h in water. Additionally, it was designed to be para-dropped from IL-76 aircraft along with airborne troops. Unfortunately, due to the conflict in Ukraine, the deal for the Russian light tanks was cancelled.

In 2019, the DRDO’s project for a light tank was discontinued due to its failure to meet the General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQR) specifications and a lack of interest from the users. Subsequently, DRDO was reactivated, and Larsen and Toubro (L&T) were brought in to collaborate on the project. The initiative to produce a light tank was named ‘Zorawar’, honouring a renowned Dogra General who achieved notable victories in Gilgit and Baltistan in 1841 and reached Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet.

Following the new GSQR, the Zorawar light tank was designed with a weight not exceeding 25 tons, making it amphibious and air-portable by IL76/C-17 aircraft. The tank is built on the chassis of the K9 Vajra self-propelled artillery 155mm, with 100 units of the latter already inducted. Several prototypes underwent rigorous trials, and the project received approval under the Make in India initiative by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAP-2020). A prototype of the Zorawar tank was showcased at the Defence Expo 2022.

NEED FOR LIGHT TANKS

Light tanks have garnered increased attention and interest in recent times, particularly in response to escalating security concerns in remote and inaccessible regions, as evidenced by the India-China skirmishes from 2020 to 2022. The challenging operational environment in the extremely high altitudes of Ladakh has posed difficulties for the use of main battle tanks such as the T-72, T-90, Arjun Mk1, and Arjun Mk2.

These tanks were not specifically designed or equipped to navigate and perform effectively in the harsh and demanding conditions prevalent in these areas. As a result, there is a renewed focus on developing and utilizing light tanks that are better suited for operations in such challenging terrains.

Operating at high altitudes poses several challenges for military platforms. Conventional vehicles such as main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and self-propelled artillery face difficulties in generating sufficient power to manoeuvre effectively in these environments. The challenges arise from the rarefied air and lower oxygen levels at high altitudes, leading to reduced engine performance and overall operational limitations.

These challenges have been evident in various military engagements, including the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Operation Meghdoot, the India-Pakistan Siachen Conflict, the Kargil War, and more recently, the Galwan Conflict.

The requirement for light tanks in high-altitude regions stems from the need for specialized platforms that can address the challenges posed by extreme altitudes. Deploying conventional military platforms in such environments necessitates specific modifications, including adaptations for rarefied air, special types of fuel, and other adjustments that can add stress to logistical operations in these areas.

For example, the K9 Vajra self-propelled howitzers deployed by India in Ladakh and Leh in response to Chinese incursions had to undergo special modifications to function effectively in high altitudes. These modifications were crucial to ensuring that the equipment could operate optimally and meet the demands of the challenging terrain.

Furthermore, the Indian Army identified the presence of the Chinese Type 15 tank on the Chinese side, which provided a significant advantage over the assets deployed by the Indian Army at the extreme heights of the Galwan Valley. This recognition highlighted the need for specialized light tanks that could navigate the difficult terrain and provide a competitive edge in high-altitude conflicts.

SPECIFICATIONS

The Zorawar, designed as a mountain tank, boasts several key specifications. Its primary armament is a 105 mm rifled main gun, capable of firing APDS (Armor-Piercing Discarding Sabot) and HESH (High-Explosive Squash Head) ammunition. Additionally, the tank features a coaxial machine gun and is equipped with adequate armour protection. The weight of the Zorawar has been successfully reduced to 25 tons, making it suitable for operations in challenging mountainous terrain.

The tank will be operated by a three-person crew, consisting of a Commander, Gunner, and Driver. To enhance situational awareness and reconnaissance capabilities, the Tank Commander will have access to a quadcopter drone for deep forward reconnaissance. The tank is also equipped with loitering ammunition, adding a layer of versatility to its capabilities.

Trials for the Zorawar are scheduled to be completed by late 2023. The production plan involves building 50 tanks in the first phase, followed by an additional 250 tanks in the second phase. It is anticipated that by mid-2024, the Zorawar, as the first indigenous mountain tank, will be operational along the Indus River in Eastern Ladakh, contributing to the Indian Army’s capabilities in the region.